South of the Antarctic Circle: Gray Skies, Blue Ice

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Last Updated on April 26, 2024 by Audrey Scott

Life's journeys play host to the constant battle of expectations and delivery. Antarctica was no different except that our expectations of it were within inches of the stratosphere given the mystique and the cost of the trip. However, we did not carry a must-see checklist outlining this bit of wildlife or that bit of landscape, this scene or that moment. We could not really quantify our desires — we had simply hoped to be overwhelmed.

Then, on that first Antarctic morning, we stepped foot off the gangway of the MS Expedition and into a zodiac. It was clear that we were about to be blown away — but in a way that none of us had quite expected.

South of the Antarctic Circle, Hanusse Bay
South of the Antarctic Circle in Hanusse Bay

We were in Hanusse Bay, a few clicks south of the Antarctic Circle. Just before, Mother Nature had tested us on the Drake Passage by sending 35-50 foot waves our way. (A polar navigation veteran with 35 years of experience rated the difficulty of our passage as 8 out of 10).

Everyone was anxious to see and feel the place for which they had traveled all this way.

Mother Nature began that day by painting the sky with gray primer touched by steel wool. She offered no postcard cliché, no azure blue skies with popping white mountains. Her opening display was about honesty. On her canvas of truth, she dropped in shrouded glaciers and brushed in water that was ink-black. But amidst all this dimness, she placed massive hunks of turquoise blue ice that appeared to be illuminated from within and reflected them in the water in electric shades of light green.

South of the Antarctic Circle, Tour to Antarctica
Ice Formations in Hanusse Bay – Antarctica

We could only wonder: from where the light?

Jared, our zodiac driver, quit the motor. We sat suspended, swaddled by the immensity of our surroundings. It was fiercely quiet. Although we were not the first to ply these waters, the scene evinced freshness and mystery, a kind of infinite natural virginity.

A few crabeater seals and seabirds sitting on icebergs dotted our vision, but the star of that morning was ice, pure and simple. All we could hear were the occasional plunks and scrapes of glacier fragments glancing off the side of the zodiac. When the floes thinned, the silence was punctuated with the snap, crackle, and pop of melting brash ice in the water that surrounded us.

South of the Antarctic Circle Tour - Hanusse Bay
Ice Formations in Hanusse Bay – Antarctica

We began moving again. Behind each giant piece of floating ice, the light shifted with the Antarctic wind and the whites and blues of icebergs and glaciers took on a new character. It played stunning and eerie as we glided through the water. Like a land conceived of in the imaginations of inventive science fiction writers seeking to teach us a lesson, this Antarctica was solemn and otherworldly.

A few times, giant hunks of ice separated from calving glaciers and fell into the sea, setting off waves that would have toppled our zodiac had we been too near. This was Mother Nature’s way of saying, “You can look, but you can’t get too close.”

Antarctica Tour, South of the Antarctic Circle
Zodiac by the ice.

For a first impression, Antarctica opened for us like a prizefighter that moves with ballerina-like elegance, only to deliver a knockout blow. Most passengers returned to the ship stunned and exhilarated by both the beauty and the mood of what they'd just experienced.

A land harsh and brutal, graceful and serene, Antarctica makes clear that visitors are voyeurs — guests at best, interlopers at worst. On this trip, she would eventually treat us to a taste of the stereotypically dramatic that she has to offer – the blue skies, jagged peaks and wildlife that she is known for.

But on that first morning Antarctica showed who she really was, rather than what we believed we wanted her to be.

South of the Antarctic Circle, Birds on Glaciers
Birds Resting On Top of the Ice – Antarctica
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

25 thoughts on “South of the Antarctic Circle: Gray Skies, Blue Ice”

  1. it is mind blowing.
    Antarctica is my ultimate destination. you guys are so inspired me.
    i really thank you for that.
    amazing picture. can’t imagine that things are in front of me!
    truly remind us about Mother Nature’s will, right? 🙂

  2. These photos are stunning! And what an experience! To just sit there on your zodiac and listen to the sound of silence…and such imposing beauty. I am jealous, jealous, jealous of your amazing trip.

  3. I’m speechless. I may just gaze at these photos all day today. This world is such an incredible place. So peaceful, yet so powerful at the same time.

  4. Your description is just magical – you have put me right there on the zodiac with you. This is only furthering my intense desire to Antarctica!

  5. That is just absolutely gorgeous. I’m jealous.

    Did you bring along a copy of Shackelton’s book “The Endurance” for pleasure reading on your trip? 🙂

  6. Awesomely-written post. The photographs are superb, as usual. Speaking of science fiction writers, you might like to check out the writing of H.P. Lovecraft – he has a few stories dealing with frozen wastelands containing unknown horrors not that different from Antarctica.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments and compliments. My individual responses are below:

    @Kyle: Even though I’m just getting around to responding to your comment, there’s something about the use of the word “insane” that made me laugh when I first read it (4AM, before running for a bus). Very appropriate. The colors in Antarctica were difficult for my mind to process.
    @Juno: After having been there, we can attest that Antarctica is a great ultimate destination to have in mind. In a way, we still find it hard to believe that we were there. For us, that journey will stand as of one of the truest reminders of Mother Nature’s will.
    @Lori: I’m glad that we are able to convey at least a piece of what we were feeling, particularly that first day. We were speechless (or at least agog, muttering the same silliness over and over again). I think we can be reminded that the world is incredible, beautiful, peaceful and powerful just about anywhere — if we choose to see it. Antarctica just makes it very easy to do.
    @Shannon: I’m glad we are able to at least get you close to the experience (inside the zodiac is great!). Antarctica is a keeper.
    @Josh: Thanks for suggesting Shackleton’s book. It’s now on the list. His name (and others) came up repeatedly during the course of the journey. This is one of the great things about this particular tour — besides the visual and the adventure, we were surrounded by experts and historians in the boat and history (active and abandoned research and whaling stations) outside the boat. With all the lectures and fascinating people on board, our free time was pleasantly limited. In what little free time there was, we were trying to relate some of the experience to our readers and followers in real time.
    @jen: I’m glad people are enjoying our photos. As incredible as Antarctica was, I found it difficult to do it justice and convey it — in words and images. Excellent choice of words, imposing beauty. We were surrounded by it, made one with it.
    @Gil: A terrific one for sure.
    @Keith: When I wrote the line about the science fiction writers, I wondered if anyone would suggest some books and authors that spoke to the comparison. Thanks for your suggestion.
    @John: Certainly a life-affirming journey that has left some long-lasting impressions. And we will see — it may just be one of those trips that has changed our lives.
    @JoAnna: We certainly are fortunate to have been there, to have gone when we did, and to have experienced it all with some really terrific people, Gap Adventures staff and passengers alike.
    @Daisy: Thank you!

  8. Truly wonderful! Antarctica is such a dream for so many of us travelers.

    I bet you guys are glad you decided on going! 🙂


  9. Audrey and Dan: Thanks again so much for your beautiful photos and descriptions of what had to be nothing short of magical. This special place could be a metaphor for life. In one moment raging and ready to overturn the boat, and in the next, a calm and almost eerily serene landscape. In this setting we as humans stand both as special and insignificant. Life lived usually tosses us from one end of the spectrum to the other. As I share the magic moment of your photos I find myself reminded repeatedly of life’s most profound lesson, humility.

  10. “But on that first morning Antarctica showed who she really was, rather than what we believed we wanted her to be.”

    That sentence gave me goose bumps, it’s one of those quotes you would hear in the end of a good movie.
    Thanks for a great post and photos!

  11. The idea of interloping seems accurate. Antarctica will only give as much as she dang well wants. And the fact that wildlife can still co-exist with her is saying something. My head throbbed with excitement reading this post, and the amazing photos. 🙂

    I saw a fictional book about the region from the perspective of 3 women. The Big Bang Symphony: A Novel of Antarctica by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. I just might pick that up.

  12. @Lola: No doubt about this one: no regrets.
    @Jeffrey: It was cool, but not that cold. Temperatures hovered anywhere between the 20s and low 30s, sometimes even the 40s. What really affected warmth was the wind. On the first couple of days, it wasn’t much of a factor, but later in the trip, the wind was probably in the neighborhood of 50-60 miles per hour. I believe Antarctica is technically the windiest continent on the planet.
    @Don: Antarctica as a metaphor for life. Absolutely true. And as many times as explorers have attempted to tackle the 7th continent, I’m sure they’d be the first to tell us how humbled their Antarctica experiences have made them.
    @Sofia: Thank you for the compliment! Antarctica is a difficult place to put into words.
    @Nomadic Chick: That anything lives in Antarctica is a testament to the continent and the persistence of life. Haven’t heard of the book — we’ll definitely check it out. Thanks!

  13. Incredible photos, we are keeping our fingers crossed to head to Antarctica in January and have really enjoyed your posts about this amazing place and it’s beautiful landscape!

  14. @Erica: Glad you enjoyed our posts about Antarctica. Was certainly — and obviously we hope — one of the more memorable events on our journey around the globe. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you, too.


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